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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

08 November 2019

Malcolm Guite dips into Boswell’s Life of Johnson


BOSWELL’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. makes wonderful bedside reading. It has the great advantage that you can open it anywhere, take up the narrative, and be fed, sustained, entertained, and, almost always, comforted. For it is not really a narrative at all, but a series of invitations to join the company, to listen in, to feel part of that circle of stimulating talk, judicious observation, wit — in its widest and deepest sense — and long, strong, unemphatic, but always hospitable Christian fellowship.

Once the initial story of his life and achievements, up to his meeting with Boswell, has been told, the rest of the book, and far the largest part, is really a series of nourishing and entertaining anecdotes: you can open the book and close it where you please without losing the thread; for there is no thread to lose. And, when you do open it, almost at random, your eye is sure to fall on something like this: “There was a pretty large circle this evening. Dr. Johnson was in good humour, lively, and ready to talk upon all subjects.”

And then away you go, romping through topics that, though occasionally “dated”, are often surprisingly modern in their reach and thought: Why is it that female domestics are invariably paid less than their male equivalents? Surely, says the great doctor, this offends against natural justice. Then there are little glimpses of newfangled inventions, which we know — though Boswell doesn’t — will change everything:

“Mr Ferguson, the self- taught philosopher, told him of a new-invented machine which went without horses: a man who sat in it turned a handle, which worked a spring that drove it forward. ‘Then, Sir, (said Johnson,) what is gained is, the man has his choice whether he will move himself alone, or himself and the machine too.’”

Ah, the new invention for dealing with burdens which turns out to be a new burden — if only we had the good doctor’s opinion on the invention of email! And then the conversation turns to family affections. Are they innate or acquired? Then they turn, just as naturally and unaffectedly, to faith and theology, and Johnson, surprisingly, sets out the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory with great understanding and sympathy:

“They are of the opinion that the generality of mankind are neither so obstinately wicked as to deserve everlasting punishment, nor so good as to merit being admitted into the society of blessed spirits; and therefore that God is graciously pleased to allow of a middle state, where they may be purified. . .”

Sometimes, I read with envy and wish that I, too, at the end of a stressful or harassing day, could be admitted to that circle of leisurely and genial conversation, where real disagreements are entertained with such charity.

But then I see that Johnson attained that calm and largesse, even in the midst of his own stresses and hassles. As he puts it, far better than I could, in a letter of apology to Boswell for not having written sooner: “Sir, I have been hindered, I know not how, by a succession of petty obstructions.”

A classic sentence! I think that’s how I will begin the next apologetic email I have to write, for missing a meeting, or failing to keep up with my own correspondence.

Special offer: After Prayer: New sonnets and other poems (Canterbury Press), by Malcolm Guite, is available from Church House Bookshop for £9.89.

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